The Report Company: What is your overview of the new, post-war Sri Lanka?

Dr. Chris Nonis: Following 28 years of conflict perpetuated by the hegemony of terrorism, Sri Lanka finally achieved peace under the leadership of His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and we have also achieved the political stability which ensures consistency in policy. Sri Lanka now has a historic opportunity to make that transition from a developing to a developed Nation, but the speed of this transition will depend not only on the indigenous communities of Sri Lanka, but also on the Diaspora, the British and all the international communities.

In the post-conflict era, there is renewed enthusiasm to rebuild the Nation, and we have a comprehensive rehabilitation, reconciliation and reconstruction programme in the conflict affected areas of the North and East, as well as key developments in the South, which will enable the country to move to a higher growth trajectory.

We have witnessed the evolution of an extremely conducive macroeconomic environment, with a GDP Growth rate of over 7 percent, but what is more striking, is the regional growth rate of over 22% in the previously conflict affected areas. There is substantial progress in economic development of the rural areas, in particular under ‘Vadakkin Vasantham’ (Flourishing North) and ‘Neganahira Navodaya’ (Eastern Revival), and this is very much in consonance with the vision articulated in the Mahinda Chintana, the President’s overall vision for the Country which provides for a pro-poor growth, and an equitable and inclusive growth, which seeks to bridge the urban rural divide. When we take measures such as these towards bridging the urban rural gap and bringing economic prosperity to the regions, particularly in the conflict affected areas, it will hasten the process of reconciliation, and contribute towards a durable peace.

What is your assessment of the state of the bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and the UK? What would you say the main intersections of interest between the two countries are right now?

The UK has probably the greatest reservoir of goodwill of any country with Sri Lanka, because of our history, and we should now replenish that reservoir. Both our countries have a rich and varied plurality of economic, cultural, and linguistic traditions, and I think we should draw more deeply on the strength of our shared heritage, harness our collective strengths, and leverage on our commonalities as we build the economic base of a unitary Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Cameron has clearly articulated the new thrust of Economic Diplomacy, and that was re-echoed by the Secretary of State the Rt Hon William Hague. I was heartened to hear this as therein lies an opportunity for the UK-Sri Lankan relationship-

We enjoy a warm and longstanding bilateral relationship with the UK and it is therefore a particularly opportune time for the UK to rebuild bridges, and reinvigorate the special relationship it has enjoyed since independence, and replenish the tremendous reservoir of goodwill we have between our two countries. This can be a relationship of mutual interest not based on misconceptions and prejudices vis-a-vis the conflict, perpetuated by those with collateral and separatist agendas, but instead based on the commercial and political aspirations for our two countries in the future.

TRC: What particular areas would be most interesting to British investors?

CN: UK companies with USD 300 Million worth of Foreign Direct Investment were, after China, Sri Lanka’s second largest FDI provider. The commercial relationship is substantial between our two countries, and the UK after the USA is Sri Lanka’s largest export market and Sri Lanka enjoys a trade surplus with the UK, with over 3 billion pounds worth of exports from Sri Lanka to the United Kingdom each year, and over 380 million pounds of imports. Investment from UK includes household names such as Marks & Spencer, HSBC, Standard Chartered, the London Stock Exchange, and opportunities abound in the country given the strong economic growth which is occurring here.

There are a substantial number of British production facilities in Sri Lanka, and there is also great opportunity for the small and medium size enterprises of Britain to participate in the regeneration and reconstruction of Sri Lanka in the post-conflict era, in areas such as Financial Services; Infrastructure; Agribusiness and Plantations; the Tourist Sector; Logistics; Fisheries; Energy. Another strong area of British interest in Sri Lanka is in Education with over 8000 Sri Lankan Students studying in the UK and at the same time over 25 British Universities provides UK qualifications in Sri Lanka.

There is a growing recognition of the geographic importance of Sri Lanka being directly in between the maritime routes of the west and east, and that is partly why SL today is such a multi-ethnic, culturally diverse and heterogeneous community. Sri Lanka’s vision today is to leverage on its strategic location on the international trade routes and thereby transform the nation into a dynamic hub of global logistics.

As Asia has emerged a critical stakeholder in the global economy, Sri Lanka post-conflict development is part of that dynamic regional growth, with a substantial increase in trade with India and China. We are now seeing a renewed tide of visitors to take in our rich scenery, archaeology, architecture, history and culture. The country has a well-educated young population for whom it is promoting regional cooperation as a means to create opportunities. It is also the opportunity to enhance South-South Cooperation and pan-Commonwealth trade. Another advantage lies in our comprehensive FTA’s with both India and Pakistan, and if British business wants to engage with India, Sri Lanka provides that conduit.

SL is also looking to develop a hub of ethical manufacturing and ecotourism. We are seeing a substantial expansion of tourism volumes, with the UK being one of our main tourist markets, and set to be the largest from the EU region.

The BOI offers attractive fiscal incentives, and opportunities abound for JV Partnerships with Sri Lankan companies, in all sectors, and in a sustainable manner, as Carbon and environmental management has also moved up the domestic corporate agenda.

TRC: What work do you do with the Sri Lankan diaspora community in the UK?

CN: I think it is an opportune moment to mobilize both Diaspora and British communities, engage in constructive dialogue to increase the partnership between our respective countries, in the post conflict reconciliation, reintegration and reconstruction process, so that all our communities may together reap the dividends of economic growth and make that peace a durable one.

The imperative is to facilitate the transformation of the migrant Diaspora into instruments of socio-economic development of Sri Lanka, with technology transfer, capacity building. With this pragmatic and positive approach of engagement, education, reconciliation, reintegration, investment, economic development, we will have the opportunity for us to heal the wounds of conflict and all to work together to rebuild our nation in the post conflict era.

It is in this spirit of mutual respect of diversity and understanding that I try to work, with all members of the Diaspora and British communities, so that all communities, Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, & Burgers and all religions Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim, can together, build a pluralistic and inclusive society.

In addition to the plethora of diaspora events we participate in, we also have a diaspora dialogue on a monthly basis at the High Commission, which provides an update on Sri Lanka and gives those in the diaspora the opportunity to articulate their issues, and we invite all the communities to come and participate. We also organize these when Parliamentarians visit from Sri Lanka, so that the diaspora have the opportunity to directly engage with the Government. We have also created a Sri Lanka Renaissance Forum, which is entirely apolitical. In addition to the existing diaspora events, we try to make the High Commission a place where our doors are open to everyone. We respect the diversity of each and every one of us, because I believe that it is when we respect each other’s diversity that we give each other dignity, and it is when we give each other dignity that we ensure a durable peace.

Therefore we encourage the Diaspora to join in with, and to be involved as much as possible in projects that are both contemporary and relevant to the needs of the indigenous Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, and Burgher people of Sri Lanka. It is in this spirit of mutual respect and understanding that we are all working together with all communities, as one Sri Lanka.

TRC: How would you like Sri Lanka to be perceived in the UK?

CN: Our relationship with Britain has a very long history, and there is a commonality of values between our two countries. We have had an enormous reservoir of goodwill over the last 150 years and what we need to do is to leverage on our commonalities and also further develop the understanding between the two countries.

We also need to highlight and articulate the very real progress that is being made in the country in the post-conflict era. Sri Lanka is occasionally seen in a negative light, which is an anachronistic view, and doesn’t give a true picture of the really positive things that are going on, such as the well-structured reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction programme, and the unity and cohesion between all communities.

We call on all those in the international community to visit Sri Lanka, so they may make a fair, objective and impartial analysis of the country’s post-conflict progress based on facts not fiction. The imperative is to not be influenced by covert pressure from lobby groups veiled in the cloak of legitimacy, but who are in reality demagogues of division, and only serve to retard the very comprehensive reconciliation process going on in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is uniquely placed at the crossroads of the East and West, and the UK has great opportunity to become more involved, particularly as Prime Minister Cameron has so clearly articulated his vision for ‘Economic Diplomacy.’ To this end we invite the British community to come and see the very real progress that is taking place, and the progress in achieving an equitable growth, in which the peace dividend accrues to all the rural areas. This is an opportune moment for the people of Britain to join with us in Sri Lanka’s renaissance.

What we look for from the British community is to rekindle this warm and bilateral relationship, and what our people need is the graciousness of heart and generosity of spirit to be given the time and space to reconcile and rebuild our Nation.

TRC: As the Chairman of Mackwoods, what do you have to say about the company’s recent, oversubscribed IPO?

CN: I think it is a reflection of the trust placed in our Company, and its reputation for good governance and building sound sustainable business models. A defining strength of Mackwoods is its heritage of stability, integrity, and resilience in the face of adversity. The Mackwoods Group has developed over the 170 years into a very diverse organisation, and is today engaged in seven sectors, namely healthcare, agribusiness and plantations, import-export trading, power generation, ICT education and software development; hotels and leisure, and more recently we entered the financial services sector with our stockbroking company. However if you take a long hard look at the strategy it has been one of selective diversification within each of our domain areas of expertise. Furthermore what has kept the Mackwoods Group going forward is that it has been consistently led by successive generations who have all been professionals in their own right, and have preserved the principles and family values of the group. Therefore when people subscribe, in addition to buying into the business they also buy into the core values of the company.